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Annual General Meetings over the Years
2000 Palermo, Sicily, Italy

The Annual General Meeting, Palermo, Sicily
by Yvette Varvaressou, reprinted from TMG No. 23 January 2000

The gardens and parks of Palermo were the setting for this year’s Annual General Meeting of the MGS, concluding with a hike up into the mountains of La Madonie nature reserve. About 50 members of the MGS met in the Sicilian capital on a sunny Thursday afternoon, October 19, to begin the tour with a visit to the garden of the Villa Malfitano, in the city itself.

We were warmly welcomed by Dr Marcello Cascino and Alison Richards, a descendant of Joseph Whitaker, marsala merchant and connoisseur of botany, ornithology and archaeology, who built the house and laid out the garden in 1885. It would be hard for the expert, let alone an amateur, to better the wonderful description of the Malfitano garden given by Dr Cascino in TMG 21, so I refer you to his article for details of that magnificent arboretum. We spent a very pleasant afternoon wandering about under the trees and catching up with old friends. Apart from Dr Cascino, we were also privileged to have with us the very knowledgeable Dr Gian Lupo Osti, who is a distinguished expert in peonies. Then it was back to the hotel for a reception, before some of us dined at trattorias in the vicinity.

The next morning it was time for the annual general meeting itself at the city’s Orto Botanico, courtesy of its director, Professor Trapani, which we were then able to explore, although unfortunately we were not left with much time to do justice to it due to the length of the meeting. The Botanical Garden, part of Palermo University, was where botany was first taught as a scientific subject as early as 1779. Open to the public since 1795, it contains a total of 12,000 varieties of plants including significant tree collections – palms, the Moraceae family, including an enormous Ficus macrophylla with aerial roots supporting huge branches, citrus fruit trees and an interesting avenue of false kapok trees, Ceiba insignis (formerly Chorisia insignis). In the centre of the garden is a circular pond of three concentric areas of varying depths, divided into 24 small basins containing aquatic plants including the lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) and Nuphar lutea as well as different species of water-lily. A magnificent specimen of the dragon’s blood tree (Dracaena draco) stands atop a small hill nearby. The garden’s administrators are particularly proud of their extensive Herbarium which contains specimens of flora from Sicily and other Mediterranean areas. The magnificent conservatory was a favourite trysting place of Nelson and Lady Hamilton.

At lunch, we had taste of Sicily’s cuisine as well as its history, traces of which have been preserved in the 15th-century Palazzo Ajutamicristo. The current occupant, Barone Calefati di Canalotti, and his family now hosted us for a buffet lunch among works of art and memorabilia that have come down through the centuries to give a glimpse of what Palermo must have been like in centuries gone by. How many other ‘living’ museums there must be behind the decayed grandeur of Palermo’s walls!

Then it was on to the nature reserve of the Parco della Favorita, where we were joined by Dr. Angelo Troia, an environmental scientist with a deep knowledge of Sicilian flora and habitats. The 1,022-hectare natural reserve that includes the forbidding heights of Monte Pellegrino combines areas given over to the region’s agriculture, particularly citrus orchards, with maquis and rocky cliffs including many rare and endemic plants – Scabiosa cretica, Helichrysum rupestre, Chamaerops humilis, Centaurea cineraria (syn. C. ucriae). The sheer cliffs of Monte Pellegrino are the home of buzzards, kestrels, peregrine falcons and other birds of prey that nest among cracks in which sprout barbary figs and caper plants. Its base is dotted with Euphorbia dendroides and Pistacia lentiscus, among other Mediterranean plants. The 400-hectare Parco della Favorita at the base of the mountain was originally created as a hunting and fishing ground for the former Bourbon king of Naples, Ferdinand III, who also wanted a botanical garden to experiment in agriculture. Aleppo pine forests planted at the foot of the mountain some time ago are to be allowed to die off as they are too much work to maintain and are destined gradually to make way for more native species. The plan is not to try and make a forest straight away but to plant shrubs which will evolve into woodland. Dwarf palms and wonderful varieties of orchids are also found throughout the park.

The next morning we left bright and early for La Madonie, following the coast along the Palermo-Catania highway and then up to Quacella. Although he could not be with us, Dr. Massimo Belli, president of the Ente Parco delle Madonie, sent along a detailed map and guide to the region for each of us, which were much appreciated. Established as a nature reserve in 1999, the Madonie covers 35,000 hectares. It includes over a dozen towns and villages and a mountain range whose highest peak, Carbonara, is at 1,979 metres Sicily’s second highest after Mt. Etna. The Madonie forest itself covers 15,000 hectares above 1,500 metres and includes trees characteristic of northern Europe such as elm and mountain maple as well as plants common in Africa such as holly. In all there are around 2,600 different species of plants. Among hundreds of other local endemics are Astracantha nebrodensis (syn. Astragalus nebrodensis), Helianthemum oelandicum subsp. incanum, Helichrysum nebrodense and Jurinea bocconei. One of the most important species found here is Abies nebrodensis, a fir of which there are only 23 individuals left. Once thought to be on the verge of extinction, some began to produce cones with fertile seeds in the early 1980s, although it is not clear whether this is due to sexual maturity or to pollination from introduced firs. They are scattered in the valley of Madonna degli Angeli, where we hiked for over two hours, guided by Dr. Cascino, Dr. Troia and Dr. Osti. Landscape architect Francesca Marzotto, the founder of Gardenia magazine, joined us for the hike, so we were lucky to have a number of Italian experts along to share their knowledge with us.

Abies nebrodensis, Madonie, taken in 2007
by Carlo Columba, Wikipedia

Parco delle Madonie, by Martin Teetz for Wikipedia

On the way home we stopped for an hour or so in the coastal town of Cefalù, where a head-shaped rock towers over the narrow cobbled streets and bay. We visited the magnificent cathedral that reflects the passage of Sicily’s many rulers through the ages – Norman, Arab and Greek.

On our final evening, we said our goodbyes over yet another Sicilian meal, this time at the Osteria Cancelletto, promising to meet again next year in Greece.
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